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Home>Polar Scientists... >Theories Far and Wide>How About The Pole?

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Animals That Are Supposed to Exist There--Birds Peculiar to the Arctic Region--A Strange Tale From Point Barrow--A Fresh Water Floeberg That Gen. Greely Saw.

What is the North Pole like?

It is situated on land; that seems to be almost a certainty. There is land bare of ice in that part of the world, and clear water, too. Good and scientific reasons lie back of these assumptions. That the region in question is inhabited by various animals is an undisputed fact. It cannot be asserted with confidence that human beings do not live there.

It is known that several species of birds live and breed in regions so far to the north of any point as yet reached by explorers. They are seen migrating toward the pole, their flocks vanishing into the unknown beyond. Obviously, they cannot lay their eggs or rear their young on ice floes or bergs, and so it must be taken for granted that they find bare land suitable for the purpose. The rosy gull, most beautiful of all its fleet-winged tribe, spends summer and winter within the mysterious and unexplored area. Its species is actually restricted to that area, only occasional specimens being seen outside of it, driven to the southward by storms. Only once has a flock of rosy gulls been seen. It passed Point Barrow, the most northerly point of Alaska.

There must be no small extent of land in a region that exclusively maintains a whole species of animals. Open water there must be all the year around, else the rosy gulls would starve. Doubtless the birds skirt the ice fields in winter, looking for fish. Two species of sandpipers breed in the unexplored area. The same may be said of at least one species of goose. Every spring brant are seen from Point Barrow, flying northward, whither no human being has yet been able to follow.

If there be a polar continent, there is no reason for picturing it as devoid of animal or vegetable life. In its surrounding waters are plenty of fishes, doubtless, as well as numerous species of crustaceans; in its bays seals disport themselves perhaps, and possibly walrus are not absent. As for the flora, there is apt to be as much of it as is found on Spitzbergen--that is to say, plenty of mosses and lichens, with even a few flowering plants, such as the yellow arctic poppy.

The most interesting question about the North Pole is as to whether human being(sic) are to be found in its vicinity. Such a notion is not so absurd as might be imagined. From decade to decade bold explorers have ventured further and further toward the northern extremity of the earth's axis; but, however high the point reached, people have always been discovered dwelling there. A short time ago Nansen outlined the north coast of Greenland, proving it to be an island. Yet, at the north end of the island he came across a colony of 279 Esquimaux, pursuing a contented and fairly prosperous existence by means of hunting and fishing.

The man who is lucky enough to discover the North Pole may well feel somewhat discouraged if he finds a lot of people living there. Yet, why not? The climate cannot be so dreadfully severe; it is certainly not nearly so cold as north latitude 68 degrees. On that coldest latitude is situated the town of Werkojansk, in Siberia. And just here may as well be told a remarkable story that rests on the authority of Capt. Herendeen, formerly engaged in the arctic whaling service, who is now employed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The event he describes occurred in the winter of 1885, which he spent at Point Barrow.

There is an esquimaux village at Point Barrow, and also a whaling station. One day there was a great commotion, and Capt. Herendeen saw half the people of the village running, evidently much excited. They came to him and told him that three strange-looking men had been seen on the ice off the Point. They were dressed peculiarly--not in deerskins, but in a white fur, which was supposed to be that of the Polar bear. They acted as if very tired, and it was noticed that they had no guns. This last point was particularly surprising, inasmuch as nobody in that part of the world ever goes out without a gun. Now, the Esquimaux are proverbial for their hospitality and amiable inclination toward strangers, and they were astonished when the three men took fright on seeing them and ran away over the ice to the northward. This was what had caused the excitement.

The Esquimaux declared positively that the three men were not of their people. Their dress and actions made this a certainty. If so, whence did they come? The only tenable theory seemed to be that they had drifted on an ice floe from an unknown land far to the north, the existence of which was asserted by a tradition among the Esquimaux. They say that some of their people were once carried away by a storm and reached this land, subsequently returning. One of the natives was so confident of the of the truth of the story that he begged Capt. Herendeen to secure for him a passage on a north-bound whaler, in order that he might go with the ship as far as possible and then leave it to complete the adventurous journey in his little boat.

The old notion of a Palaeocrystic sea, or a sea of ancient and never-melting ice around the Pole, was long ago exploded. It was originated by the explorer, Nares, who believed that the water in that part of the world was frozen down to the very bottom of the shallow ocean. On the other hand, the idea of an open polar sea, as conceived by Kane, is no longer entertained--that is to say, of an ever-open sheet of water surrounding the Pole. The fact seems to be that there is always more or less open water in that region, though where there is ice in one winter there may be no ice in another. In other words, the conditions vary. One of the most promising suggestions for arctic exploration thus far made is that several nations should combine for the purpose of reaching the Pole. Suppose that the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan should each furnish a ship. Then let these ships start at the same time to enter the arctic circle at as many points around the world. Each vessel should have orders to go northward as far as practicable, and then to pause for the winter, build a house and wait for summer to come again. At least one of the ships would be pretty sure to find an open waterway, though the others might be stopped by ice, and so the goal might be obtained. If not, the ships would proceed the next summer on the same plan.

The Arctic Ocean is very shallow, and it is natural to suppose that there would be areas of land uplifted above its surface. So much may be taken for granted as a fact; but nobody can say with certainty whether the land is a continent of an archipelago of islands. Gen. Greely, the famous explorer, believes that it is a continent. He says that immense masses of land-made ice are seen floating southward through Kane Sea and Smith Sounds under such circumstances as render it certain that they much come from a land area far to the north. The very size of the bergs proves that the land area must be of great extent. On one occasion he saw in Smith Sounds such a floeberg that was 800 feet thick and that must have required something like 2,400 years for its formation.

Such a floeberg is quite different from an iceberg of glacial origin. The latter is a piece broken off from the end of a stream of ice that flows from the land into the sea. This floeberg, on the other hand, was a stratified deposit originally formed on land by the snows of successive winters. Eventually its weight became so great that it slid into the sea. Seen in section, the strata composing it could be counted. Each of them represented a year; the winter's snowfall was followed by the summer's partial melting and a layer of dust from the air. Thus the layers of snow were marked by corresponding layers of dirt, the strata averaging about five inches in thickness, so that it was easy to reckon the age of the berg approximately. The fact that it was fresh water ice proved that it came from the land and not from the sea.

The English are frequently accused of exhibiting a want of fairness. There could not be a better illustration of this trait of theirs than is afforded by the 'London Times' atlas for 1895. This is said to be the best atlas of the world in CANNOT READ to the latest date in all respects. It is interesting, therefore, to examine its map of the Arctic Circle, in which the points reached by various explorers are supposed to be put down with accuracy. This map puts the English expedition of Beaumont 33 miles farther north than where it actually got to. A note on the map states that this was the highest northing up to 1876. The reference is to Markham, another English explorer, to whose name the date 1876 is appended. Thus it is made to appear that Markham's was the highest north. Lockwood is put down, without mention of the fact that he was an American, and without acknowledgment of the trifling circumstance that his northing, unequaled up to date, was considerably beyond Markham's. Lockwood, it will be remembered, was a member of Greely's party, and was sent northward with sledges from Greely's last camp. It was he who discovered land to the north of Greenland--the ultimate Arctic achievement up to the present time. The Times' map is intended to deceive. Just now, by the way, the Hydrographic Office of the United States navy is preparing a huge chart of the Arctic Circle, which is designed to show the routes taken by all expeditions up to now. These comprise seventy-four tracks of expeditions, including sledge tracks, and forty-eight surveys of coasts.

The certainly(sic) that there is a good deal of open water toward the pole affords the best promises for the success of future attempts to reach it. In 1884 Wrangle started on a sledge journey northward from the north coast of Siberia, but was compelled to turn back by finding open water ahead. Nordenskiold spent a winter at Pitlekai, on the north coast of the Chukchee Peninsula, and all through that season he saw water reflected in the sky to the north. If Nansen does not reach the pole, somebody else will do so before long. The greatest successes in Arctic exploration have been made within recent years. During the eighteenth century nothing worth mentioning was accomplished in that direction. It remained for the nineteenth century to accomplish the northwest and the northeast passages, to outline the north coast of America and to discover the islands and archipelagoes poleward from the three continents of the northern hemisphere.

And yet, however, more than 8,000,000 squre miles of Arctic territory remain unexplored. There has been a tendency of late to cry down Arctic exploration as unprofitable and uselessly wateful of life. Yet the fact is that enterprise in this direction has been enourmously valuable to mankind. Within the last two centuries it has furnished to the civilized world products aggregating $1,000,000,000,000 in market value, the most important of them being yielded by the whale fisheries.

Comparison has been suggested between the climatic and other conditions of Spitzbergen and those likely to be found on the polar continent. This archipelago of Spitzbergen is described by Gen. Greely as the most interesting of Arctic lands. Though so near the pole its climate is comparatively mild. Its flora is extensive, and reindeer were once so plentiful there that Russian and Norwegian hunters killed them by thousands annually. On one occasion four Russian sailors were cast away on the east coast, where they remained seven years. They had only one gun and a few rounds of ammunition. Their experience in this polar land out did the romance of Robinson Crusoe. From driftwood cast upon the shore they made arrows and spears, which they tipped with whalebone. These were supplemented by bows that were strung with the twisted entrails of reindeer. They devised traps for catching blue foxes and nets for snaring water fowl. They labored not only to sustain life, but with a definite purpose of acquiring stores of fur and bone of commercial value. So successful were they that yearly they made large additions to their stock of skins of polar bears, reindeer, seals and foxes. One of them died in the sixth year, but the others were rescued soon afterward.--St. Louis Globe-Democrat.


Reproduced with permission: L.L. Dyche, Explorations (Newspaper Clippings Related to Polar Exploration), Vol. 1 & 2. University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence, KS.


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Original Source:

N.Y. News, New York, NY, March 29, 1896

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  Patrick Harper
University of Kansas
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